Saturday, June 20, 2009

Following the shootings of a Kansas abortion doctor and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, two prominent New York Times columnists, Paul Krugman and Frank Rich, spoke out forcefully against those in the media who spout lies and, possibly, incite violence.

There are “lunatics” out there, Mr. Krugman wrote, and “media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.” Mr. Rich warned of “toxic rhetoric” and “media demagogues,” fueling a rage that “could spiral out of control.”

So imagine my shock to see on the New Times Web site an item saying: “Cliff May argued that torture is justified against Muslims because they’re Muslim.”

What does that even mean? That I think innocent Muslims should have their fingernails pulled out? There was not a quote or fact to back up this inflammatory allegation against me. There were no links to articles I’ve written or television and radio shows on which I’ve appeared. Why would the Times attribute to me such an outrageous opinion - without even attempting to verify it? Why would it not at least call me and ask whether I would care to deny the charge?

To be fair, this was in a New York Times feature called “The Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web,” and this particular opinion had been gathered from Adam Serwer, writing in the American Prospect, which describes itself as “an authoritative magazine of liberal ideas.”

But to continue to be fair, the Times is the Times. Years ago, when I worked at the Times - as a reporter, Washington correspondent, foreign correspondent and editor - it was understood by everyone from the lowliest interns to the loftiest editors that a serious newspaper cannot relinquish responsibility for what it puts into print simply by saying: “Whoops, sorry, we lifted that from another publication.” I immediately wrote a note to the Times’ ombudsman. He has not, so far, bothered to reply.

Mr. Serwer’s piece, on the American Prospect’s blog, intended to take up the same theme as had Mr. Krugman and Mr. Rich. It started off by asserting there has been a “startling trend of fringe-right violence recently” but that such incidents generally are regarded as “the acts of deranged individuals rather than of groups because they are white men.” This somehow leads to the description of my views noted above. Mr. Serwer’s piece concluded with the question: “How much of the call for ‘extraordinary measures’ in fighting terrorism has to do with the unique challenges of fighting global terrorism, and how much of it has to do with an irrational, orientalist fear of all things Arab and Muslim?”

In the considered opinion of the American Prospect, this would be me: irrational, orientalist, fearful of all things Arab and Muslim.

I wrote a note to Mark Schmitt, the American Prospect’s executive editor, pointing out that I have never said anything that could remotely justify ascribing those views on terrorism to me. I added that I have worked closely with Muslims - not least those in my own organization, a think tank focusing on terrorism - since it was created almost eight years ago, just after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Coincidentally, I had spent the past few days hosting a conference attended by at least a half-dozen Muslims, including ambassadors from two Muslim-majority countries. Years ago, as a journalist, I reported from many Muslim-majority countries. (I did not say some of my best friends are Muslim.)

Why, I asked Mr. Schmitt, “would your magazine print something like this about me?” I asked, too: “Are you oblivious to the possibility that telling such a lie will incite some crazy to attack me or my family?”

He replied: “We [and the Times] should have provided a link, but of course you know it was a reference to your much-discussed written comments on the Corner of April 24.”

I did not, but I looked up that post on the Corner - a blog at National Review Online - and found that I had explicitly written that I oppose torture. I had thought to add, however, that I understood there would be those who would label as “pro-torture” anyone who dared argue that there “may be methods of interrogation that are unpleasant but fall short of torture.”

I went on to quote Abu Zubaydah, the captured al Qaeda terrorist who, according to CIA memos released by the Obama administration, told his interrogators: “Brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardships.”

This struck me as an important and potentially lifesaving insight into the thinking of militant Islamists. “Imagine an al Qaeda member who would like to give his interrogators information, who does not want to continue fighting, who would prefer not to see more innocent people slaughtered,” I wrote. “He would need his interrogators to press him hard so he can feel that he has met his religious obligations - only then could he cooperate.”

Mr. Schmitt insisted that what I had written was clearly “referring to interrogation techniques that are widely agreed to be torture” and therefore, the magazine’s “characterization of your comments is entirely appropriate.” What’s more, he said it was obvious I was suggesting “there is a particular need to use extreme measures on Muslims/Islamists because of the nature of their religious beliefs, that is, for being Muslims.”

I asked him if he genuinely failed to understand the difference between Muslims and Islamists, between - for example - a Kurdish businessman and an al Qaeda member with knowledge of plots targeting civilians, or between an Indonesian farmer and a leader of Hezbollah or Hamas. I know some on the far right do not make such distinctions, but for the American Prospect’s executive editor to hold this view struck me as astounding.

Of course, Mr. Schmitt is not so ignorant. He simply endorses slander against people like me, who have the temerity to dissent from the orthodoxy he advocates.

In this case, however, his magazine went beyond misrepresentation to encouraging violence - because anyone who actually does advocate torturing “Muslims because they’re Muslim” should be prepared for a dose of his own medicine.

This is more than an assault on me. It’s more than an assault on civil debate.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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